Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Beyond the barihunk: Douglas Williams returns in Acis and Galatea

Douglas Williams as Polyphemus in Acis and Galatea. Photo: Ken Friedman


Mark Morris' new production of Acis and Galatea opens this weekend a the Schubert, co-sponsored by Celebrity Series and the Handel and Haydn Society. It features bass-baritone Douglas Williams, whom we saw get his professional start in the Hub - so we were very happy to chat with Doug over e-mail prior to the show . . .

HR: Hello, Douglas! And thank you for taking the time to chat with one of your greatest admirers – and I’m not saying that just because these days you’re an official “barihunk”! ;-) 

DW: Thank you for the opportunity! As someone who got their singing start in Boston, and who returns frequently to work in this music-rich city, I have a lot of respect for the thoughtful arts writing on this blog. 

HR: Why, thanks! We do try. Sooo, these photos of you (below) are really something.  (Wait, let me catch my breath.)  They were probably sent to me because I’m the only critic in town daring enough to post them . . . But what can I say, I can’t help myself . . . and I'm sure they've brought you a lot of attention! 

DW: The photos you’re speaking of were taken by the New York photographer Kevin McDermott. I met Kevin several years ago when I premiered Charles Wuorinen’s fantastical staged cantata It Happens Like This at the Guggenheim, with Ensemble Signal. He asked me then if he could photograph me, and I thought—sure, that would be interesting to do something with a very talented photographer. A few months later I invited him out to one of my favorite haunts in the Berkshires, and he took some very nice photos.

 It was a surprise, though, to see such powerful images of myself because that’s not usually how I think of myself! People who know me well think of me as a nerd, a goofball, maybe a little shy - or even a lot shy. I mean, I memorize poetry for fun for God’s sake! I’m a naturalist and a music geek . . . Anyway - I can’t say exactly how much attention they’ve brought me but people certainly seem fascinated by them! 

As for the barihunks thing – I think it’s just another interesting phenomenon in the age of internet celebrity. I think it’s also a product of an idea from maybe fifteen years ago that pictures of shirtless men might be able to save opera. That didn’t work out, really. But there still seems to be a lingering curiosity from the public about how opera could actually be sexual, with people really inhabiting sexual lives on stage. 

HR: But hasn’t opera always traded in sex and sexuality . . ? 

DW: Well, read any libretto, of course, and you know that opera is almost always sexual! But you need a very clear telling of the story, with very real human relationships on stage for that to work effectively. Otherwise it’s just a shock tactic that by now has been played out - like so many other opera staging tropes. 

Photo: Kevin McDermott
HR: Well, I can sympathize. I personally have been haunted by a set of plus-size modeling shots I did for Hanes underwear in the 90’s! ;) But seriously – I do hear you. Opera is not one big Harlequin romance, and we all need to be reminded (myself included) that performers aren’t playthings! I’m also here to tell my readers that this particular barihunk can sing, even if he belongs on a calendar. 

In fact the first time I saw you, you sounded fantastic, and of course I was instantly smitten.  But as I recall, you were rocking an eye-patch, a powdered wig, and about a pound of rouge. You were playing Alexander Pope playing Polyphemus - or something like that – in Handel’s Acis and Galatea at the Boston Early Music Festival. (And it was wonderful, btw.) Since then you’ve made your reputation as a go-to bass-baritone in baroque and classical performance. What drew you to those styles, and have you had a favorite role so far? 

DW: Ah yes! They cycloptic eye patch from the Boston Early Music Festival production! I ended up getting involved in the baroque repertoire really because my first gigs were here in Boston, a bastion of baroque music, while I was still an undergraduate at the New England Conservatory. There wasn’t much opera opportunity there for undergrads at that time and so you had to make your own opportunities. For me that meant digging up lots of odd concert music in the library, very often sacred music. And having come from a choral upbringing I was into the lean and clean sound of early music. I also wasn’t really plugged into my body yet and so concert music felt like a very safe place for me, vocally and emotionally. I was all about singing only from the brain, rather than the body. Of course it’s both, and it took me some time to figure that out. These days I want to sing it all. Probably my favorite role so far has been Orcone, a funny, earnest, and clever servant in the Alessandro Scarlatti opera Tigrane, that I sang at the Opéra de Nice in 2012, directed by Gilbert Blin. 

HR: Monsieur Blin! A favorite of ours here at the Hub Review

DW: It was so gratifying to do comedy, which I like to think I can do well. And to fall in love on stage and just be silly is a joy. I was playing opposite the tall and gorgeous Canadian mezzo, Mireille Lebel, who is such a lovely singer and a very inviting stage presence. To have a stage partner where it just clicks is a special thing and we had a tremendous amount of fun. 

HR: Now I believe you hail from Connecticut, and you trained at Yale as well as New England Conservatory. When did you realize your voice was something special - and was there something special about those programs that attracted you to them? What would you say was your big take-away from your training? 


DW:  Yes, I grew up in Farmington, Connecticut and was very fortunate to be exposed to a rigorous music program in the public school system there. In the summer before my senior year I spent six weeks at the Boston University Tanglewood Institute. I attended every rehearsal, master class, and concert that I could possibly fit into the day, and at some point I had an epiphany that this world of music was the world I wanted to live in. I could not live anywhere else! My parents and I wisely consulted several teachers who said that a career in performance could be a possibility if I worked at it, and so I applied to music schools. After NEC I was recruited to a new voice program at Yale which emphasized concert music. I wasn’t thinking grad school right away, but how could I turn down a fully funded master’s degree? Yale was a really wonderful time for me, and exposed me to such an incredible body of repertoire and faculty. 

It’s hard for me to say if there is one big lesson from all those years of study. What I miss about school is having teachers and classmates at hand who are eager to connect you to music and recordings and great performers you never knew existed. You become a professional listener at school, and it’s crucial to keep feeding your ears with concerts, operas, and recordings in the same manner after you graduate. When you work in music it becomes all too easy to stop being a concertgoer. 

 HR: Like other reviewers, I was struck from the first by your confidence as an actor as well as singer. And I’ve read that you’ve worked with Shakespeare and Co. - was that a help in integrating the theatrical and musical sides of your roles? 

DW: I’ve always been interested in theater and the actor’s process of connecting to text while being completely open and present in the moment. The month I spent at Shakespeare and Company was unquestionably the most empowering creative educational experience I’ve had, and really a turning point in my life. Of course it had nothing to do with singing, in the technical sense, but it had everything to do with how I engaged with the world as an artist. Their training program is about speaking your own truth on the stage, and learning to remove the masks that we wear from day to day in order to survive in the world. I learned to be totally vulnerable to every word of the text and to my partners on stage. This is the sort of training that singers could use more of in school—it’s so fundamental to what we do and yet usually just assumed that a singer can do it, or will figure out how to do it over time. But emotional presence takes practice and exploration and technique, just like breathing, phonating, correct singing posture, and so on. 

HR: Even for a rising star, your trajectory has been almost meteoric. This year alone you're hopping back and forth between San Francisco, Boston, Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall! What was the biggest surprise when you made the leap from the classroom to the stage? And what advice would you give to another rising bass-baritone? 

DW: Probably the biggest surprise is that I can actually do it and make a living at it, and still keep growing and learning. I think for a while in my early twenties I doubted that I would ever be the singer that I wanted to be, or be able to merge my interest in drama with my love of classical music. It’s of course still a work in progress but with more experience and strength I am able to bring forward more of my genuine self into my singing, and this includes releasing the actor in me. It’s hard to shed old doubts and inhibitions, and singers always have to wrestle with this kind of stuff. My biggest advice to a young singer would be to never miss the opportunity to learn about yourself through your work. If you’re open to this and dedicated to self-awareness I think you will progress much faster in your technique. I did, but I had to figure that out first. 

HR: So here you are, returning to Boston in a different Acis and Galatea, although again singing the role of Polyphemus - this time at Celebrity Series and Handel and Haydn. And the big news is that it has been choreographed by certified genius Mark Morris (with whom you’ve worked before). So your career has been building steadily, but now suddenly you’re in the biggest spotlight yet – in fact the New York Times just raved about you. Tell me more about how all that came about? 

DW: I was introduced to Mark Morris and his company at Tanglewood in 2011. Mark staged an evening of Milhaud’s Opéras-Minutes with the Tanglewood Music Center fellows in which I sang a few roles. When I first saw his work and met his dancers I thought, wouldn’t that be a ball to join those people on stage in something, singing and moving? It just looked like such an outrageously fun and beautiful world to play in. And incredibly, here I am in an opera doing just that. I feel very lucky to be a part of this new production, and to be welcomed so warmly into the company of these sensitive, intelligent, and very skilled dancers. Jumping from gig to gig you rarely have the opportunity to work in an established company of artists such as this, where the common experience allows them to work very fast—almost telepathically. There’s a true spirit of community here that I wish I could have in every musical endeavor. 

HR: So what was it like to revisit Polyphemus? The two productions seem so different - what were the challenges you encountered, and the new insights you found, in this new vision? 

DW: Whenever you reprise a role in a new production you have to always stay in the present and respond to the new environment and the director’s vision. In the Boston Early Music Festival Acis, I was on stage the entire time as Polyphemus, lurking, leering, tortured by the character's voyeurism. There was a deeply bitter and pensive psychology that brought a powerful force to an intimate and very delicate production, which was interesting. Mark Morris prefers to explore love in sensuality, not violence, and this Polyphemus is a reflection of that. This Polyphemus is a dapper hedonist and truly sick with love. Love, however warped, is at the core. 

HR: Like everybody else, I’m wondering – although no real spoilers please! - what we can expect from Mark Morris. (I first began following him way back in 1984, btw!) I know Mark is working with many long-time collaborators on Acis, and of course Handel is one of his specialties. But he has decided to work with Mozart’s orchestration – an intriguing choice. Did that arrangement give him more opportunity for dance? 

DW: You can expect an evening of beauty and entertainment. The Mozart orchestration is more luscious than Handel’s, filled out by additional winds and horns, and the effect is a more sensual and immersive sound, which translates to the densely green, flowing, rapturous world that Mark and the team of designers have created on stage. Nic McGegan affirms this by always aiming for the bigger phrases and shapes in the score. Going from the trim 1718 chamber version to this fatter 1788 sonority also lends a spaciousness to the work that supports the pastoral images of expanse and rolling distance that Gay and Pope are always writing about in the libretto. 

HR: One reason I adore Mark Morris (and I know I’m not alone) is his amazing ability to limn musical structure through choreography. In fact sometimes when I want to understand a piece of music better, I check out his dance to it! Can you tell me anything about how he works, and how the singers interface with the dancers in his version? 

More of Doug in action in Acis.
DW: I know what you mean. I remember watching his dance to the Bach motet Jesu, Meine Freude, and thinking ‘Oh, of course, that’s how Bach composed this piece.’ I had never heard the piece that way, but perhaps because on some level we all experience music physically and his dances are such clear physical and visual extensions of the music. They are the elemental dances that we fantasize about doing when we hear the music. I’m still mystified by it. But the best understanding I have of his process is that the creation happens in the moment in the studio, but after a very long time (sometimes years) of saturation in the music. In both choreography and in storytelling—the same thing really—he’s after clarity and honesty. He’s not adding an extra layer of anything, he’s just responding directly to the music. He’s doesn’t want to see how much a singer is feeling, he just wants honest human emotion and connection. 

HR: I’ve heard you make quite an entrance – do you get to actually dance? 

DW: It’s by far the most fantastic entrance to the stage I’ve ever had. I’m not sure that what I do up there qualifies as dance, but I certainly move around a lot!

I actually love dancing and think that movement is such an inevitable consequence of music. I’m all for just standing and singing, too, and so is Mark. But moving on stage is so freeing, and so gratifying, and expressive. I actually did a musical this past year where I was doing a lot of choreography, and I enjoy being challenged in this way. Learning and memorizing movement is a part of the brain that I don’t often get to exercise, but must not be far from the part of the brain that processes music. You’ll see me having a tremendous amount of fun in this show sharing a step or two with my fiendish entourage. 

HR: Well - now you’ve got a rave in the Times, you’re on the road with a choreographic genius, you’ve made your debut in Europe – what’s next for Douglas Williams?

DW: Speaking of modern dance, in June I will start work on a new production of Orfeo (Monteverdi) directed by the celebrated German choreographer Sasha Waltz, singing the role of Caronte. Like Acis, it will be a choreographic opera. This production will debut at the Dutch National Opera in September and has subsequent dates at the Berlin Staatsoper and elsewhere in Europe. But what I really want to be singing—very soon—are the Mozart bass-baritone roles. I am ready for this repertoire and want to make it happen. 

HR: One last question – well, two. First – just how tall are you?? And second – where can I buy your calendar? ;-) 

DW: I’m six foot four inches. Sorry, no calendar, but I’m flattered… One thing that any singer will tell you is it’s impossible to maintain any kind of fitness regimen with all the travel and the odd hours of sleeping and eating around performances and rehearsals. I’m just happy to be where I am, vocally, and to be collaborating with some terrific people who are bringing out the best of my creative abilities.

HR: Thank you, Doug - and congratulations on a great performance!

Acis and Galatea will be performed by the Mark Morris Dance Group this weekend at the Schubert Theatre.  Tickets can be purchased through either Celebrity Series or the Handel and Haydn Society.

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